Top 10 biggest upsets in NBA history

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Warriors defeating the Mavericks in 2007
Abhinav Sharma

The beauty of the playoffs is, its unpredictable nature and the fact that anything can happen at any time. It doesn't matter how a player or a team has performed during the regular season. This is the time of the year to perform at the highest level. If a team finds itself on a roll, or if a match-up works out in their favour, then anything is possible.

History has shown us that even if you are the league MVP, or your team has finished with the best record in NBA, success is not guaranteed.

Let us take a look at 10 such instances, which turned out to be some of the biggest upsets in NBA history :

#10 Charlotte Hornets VS Miami Heat (2000-2001)

Charlotte Hornets sweep the Miami Heat

The 2000-2001 Miami Heat team, featuring Bruce Bowen, Eddie Jones, Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning, went through a rough patch at the start of the season, with their franchise player Alonzo Mourning, being diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a life-threatening kidney disease. But the Heat still ended up the third seed and looked strong heading into the playoffs.

Even though Alonzo Mourning was not his usual self, coming back from the injury and heading into the playoffs, the Heat should still have won the series, but they just could not handle the Hornets. The Hornets repeatedly beat the lethargic Heat in transition and dominated the boards, finally ending up sweeping Miami 3-0.

Baron Davis averaged 20.3 points, 4.7 boards, and 5 assists per game, to go along with Mashburn’s 23.7 points, 6 rebounds and 4.7 helpers, as the Hornets won by a margin of 22.3 points per game.

#9 Dallas Mavericks VS Los Angeles Lakers

Dallas Mavericks annihilate the Los Angeles Lakers in four games

The Lakers, having won their second title in a row in 2010 against their arch-rivals, the Boston Celtics, entered into the 2010-2011 season looking for their third consecutive title. Phil Jackson had stated at the start of the season that he would be retiring once the season is completed, and therefore was no better send off for the 11-time champion, than to win another one for him.

It seemed that the Gods were favouring the Lakers, as the first seeded Spurs were eliminated by the Grizzlies, and the Lakers looked like the clear front-runners in the West to reach the NBA Finals, having already won two consecutively.

But an incredible performance from Jason Terry to go along with the inspired Mavericks team, featuring Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and of course, Dirk Nowitzki, was just too much to handle for the Lakers, as they got obliterated off the floor to lose the series 4-0.

It was a most the unexpected defeat and an unmemorable finish to Phil Jackson’s illustrious career.

#8 Cleveland Cavaliers VS Detroit Pistons

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LeBron James scored playoff career-high 48 points to win Game 5 against the Pistons

The Detroit Pistons were a seasoned team in 2007, as they had been to two NBA Finals and three Eastern Conference Finals in a span of 3 years.They again faced the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time in the 2007 Conference Finals. The Cavaliers had finished 50-32 for the second straight year and finished off with the second seed.

The series began in a similar fashion as the previous one, with the Pistons winning the first two at home, but the Cavaliers fought back and won game 3 and 4 to tie the series 2-2. With Game 5 back in Detroit, it was clear that the Cavs needed a herculean performance from their star to steal this game on the road. And that is exactly what they got.

LeBron scored 25 straight points for the Cavaliers at one point at the end of the game, and finished with 29 of the Cavaliers’ last 30 points. He was the only Cavaliers player to score a field goal in the final 18 minutes of the game and the only Cavaliers player to score period in the final 13 minutes.

LeBron simply could not be stopped, as he scored a career playoff-high 48 points and single-handedly led the Cavaliers to a 109-107 win and finally a series win at home in game 6. Although LeBron and company got swept by the Spurs in the Finals, the fact that the Cavaliers made the Finals in the first place was pretty impressive in itself.

#7 Detroit Pistons VS Los Angeles Lakers (2004)

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Detroit Pistons destroy the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers in 5 games

The 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers are the best example of a super team gone terribly wrong. The Lakers, one year after their famous ‘three-peat’, added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a roster, that already included two of the biggest superstars in the game, in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to regain the title.

From the beginning, however, things didn’t go the way they hoped it would with Shaq pushing for a contract extension, and Kobe standing trial in a sexual assault case in Colorado. But as the Lakers met the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, all odds were with the Lakers to win the title because of the star-studded roster.

Although Karl Malone got injured, the Lakers got 26.6 points from Shaq and 22.6 points from Kobe in the series and still should have won behind their two superstars. But despite all the efforts, the Lakers were manhandled by the Pistons. The 21st-century version of the 'Bad Boys' were physically dominating, limiting LA to just 81.8 total points per game. Point guard Chauncey Billups went on to win the Finals MVP, and Detroit would win the series 4-1.

#6 Memphis Grizzlies VS San Antonio Spurs (2010-2011)

Memphis Grizzlies defeat the favourites Spurs in six games

The famous combination of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Greg Popovich went past everybody during the 2011 regular season, posting an outstanding record of 66 wins and 16 loses. Being seeded first overall, they faced the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies who had struggled all season long.

Grizzlies came out and won game 1 of the series and never looked back. They were younger, faster and more athletic, and the Spurs had no response for Zack Randolph in the post. Zach Randolph (21.5 points per game in the series), Mike Conley (14.3 points per game) and Marc Gasol (14.2 points per game) led the way as the Grizzlies knocked off the Spurs in six games to become just the fourth 8-seed to topple a 1-seed since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984.

Even though the Grizzlies ended up losing in the next round, to a team that once featured Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the upset over the Spurs remains a signature moment in their franchise history which helped give birth to the grit and grind Grizzlies as we know them today.

#5 Denver Nuggets VS Seatle Supersonics (1993-1994)

Denver Nuggets comeback from 2-0 down to win the series against the Seatle Supersonics

The Seatle Supersonics, behind Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, put up a record of 69-19 during the regular season and grabbed the first seed in the Western Conference. As they entered the playoffs, they faced the 42-40 Denver Nuggets.The series started as expected as the Sonics took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series and looked like they would sweep the Nuggets easily.

But the young Nuggets team led by fourth-year guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, third-year center Dikembe Mutombo and second-year forward LaPhonso Ellis rebounded two home victories and completely stunned the favourites in game 5 in Seattle, where George Karl’s Sonics had lost only 4 games all season.

LaPhonso Ellis' 16 points per game and Dikembe Mutombo's record 31 blocks in the series, led the way for the Nuggets comeback, and they became the first eighth-seeded team ever in NBA history to defeat a first seeded team.

Amazingly, Denver would go on to nearly pull off the same feat in the next round, falling behind 3-0 to Utah before winning three straight to force Game 7, where they were finally eliminated.

#4 New York Knicks VS Miami Heat (1998-1999)

New York Knicks defeat the Miami Heat in a riveting game 5

The 1998-1999 season was shortened due to a contract dispute, and therefore teams only played 50 games in that season, instead of the usual 82. The New York Nicks somehow landed the no.8 spot with a record of 27-23.

As they entered the playoffs, the faced a Miami Heat team that were the favourites to win that season. But the Knicks had other plans as they took the Heat to a decisive game 5. The game was a nail-biter, and it took an Allen Houston shot with just 0.8 seconds remaining on the clock, to win it for the Knicks and cause one of the biggest upsets in the NBA.

Gaining confidence from dispatching the no.1 seed, the Knicks beat the no.4 seeded Atlanta Hawks in four straight games, and then the no.2 seed Indiana Pacers, and therefore became the first eighth-seed team in the NBA to reach the Finals. They finally fell in the finals to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in five games.

Maybe a longer regular season would have revealed that the New York Knicks were a better team than their position showed in the Eastern Conference table. Nevertheless, the Knicks exceeded all the expectations and in the end, had one of the most historic seasons.

#3 Boston Celtics VS Los Angeles Lakers (1968-1969)

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The aging Boston Celtics defeat the formidable trio of the Los Angeles Lakers

An aging Boston Celtics, led by the legendary Bill Russell in his final NBA season, were in stark contrast to the Lakers who were stacked with star power, that included the formidable trio of stars, including Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

The Celtics made the playoffs as the fourth place team in the Eastern Division, with a regular season winning percentage of 58% and weren’t even favoured to reach the Finals.

In the Finals, Boston shut down two of the Lakers’ big three, Chamberlain and Baylor, and held Lakers powerful offence in check. Chamberlain who averaged 20.5 points in the regular season was reduced to 11.7 points per game in the Finals, and Baylor from 24.8 to 18. This Celtics finals victory, the last championship of the Bill Russell’s dynasty, is considered as one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.

This Finals is also known for the fact that, for the first and only time in NBA history, the Finals MVP went to one of the players from the losing team. That player was none other than 'The Logo' Jerry West, who averaged nearly 38 points per game during the Finals and was awarded the Finals MVP for his spectacular performance.

#2 Golden State Warriors VS Dallas Mavericks (2006-2007)

Warriors upset the Mavericks behind a great performance from Baron Davis

The Dallas Mavericks were the favorites to win it all heading into the 2007 playoffs, after setting a franchise record of 67-15 during the regular season under Avery Johnson. It was the same season in which Dirk Nowitzki was named the Most Valuable Player as he averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 boards, and 3.4 dimes, while shooting over 50% from the field.

The Warriors (eighth seed) had been a bad match-up for the Mavericks all season long, and had won all of their three season meetings. The same seemed to be the case in the Playoffs as the Mavericks played right into the hands of the Dubs trying to play small in the series rather than using their height advantage.

Baron Davis was the pick of the Warriors, as the 27-year old torched the Mavs with 25 points per game while shooting 45% from beyond the arc. Warriors lead the Mavs in offensive rating 113.8 to 106.6 and outscored them by almost 7 points a contest, to finally win the series 4 games to 2. With this defeat, the Warriors became the first no.8 seed team to defeat a no.1 seed team in a best of seven series.

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers VS Golden State Warriors (2015-2016)

Cleveland Cavaliers roar back from a 3-1 deficit to win 2016 Finals

The Golden State Warriors had a record-breaking season, as they won 73 games behind their leader Steph Curry, who was named the MVP (unanimous) for the second time in two consecutive seasons. When Michael Jordan was asked about his record being broken by the Warriors, he had one simple thing to say; “73 wins don’t mean anything without a ring” and that statement proved to be true.

The Warriors were expected to repeat as back to back champs after the extraordinary season they had. As they headed into the playoffs, Steph Curry suffered a knee injury in game 1 and had to be sidelined for almost two weeks.

The Warriors were surprised by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Conference Finals, as they had found a way to play against the Warriors small ball lineup, that had tormented all teams all season. The Warriors came back from a 3-1 deficit behind of the exceptional record-breaking shooting from Klay Thompson in game 6 to reach the NBA Finals.

As the Warriors were on the cusp of finishing their dream season, with a 3-1 lead of their own this time in the series, and a chance to finish it at their home, Draymond Green got suspended for game 5. LeBron grabbed onto this opportunity (LeBron lead both the teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks and had one of the greatest Finals performances in NBA Playoff history) and rallied his team to come back from a 3-1 deficit (first team ever in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals) to give Cleveland its first championship in 50 years and the fans a Finals for the ages.

Edited by Brett Shaw


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